Monday, December 12, 2016

Theodicy and Idiocy

In the previous post, I discussed the hexadecarabbinical condemnation of Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi (who is responding by portraying himself as a martyr being "murdered" by "very evil" "ignorant" "jealous" rabbis who are "resha'im" and the "tools of Satan"). In this post, I would like to discuss one particular interesting question that has been raised. This is with regard to Rabbi Mizrachi's statements about theodicy: that people get cancer due to mixed dancing, that the tragedies of the Sassoon children and  children being born blind or with Downs syndrome are punishment for their having watched pornography or other sins in their previous lives, or due to women wearing sheitels of the wrong length, and other such claims. (Let us ignore for now the fact that the notion of transmigration of souls is not a feature of classical Judaism and was opposed by several Geonim and Rishonim when it was first imported from other religions; for the purposes of this discussion, let us work within the framework of those who accept it as part of Jewish belief.)

Several people have argued that Rabbi Mizrachi is surely no innovator in this regard (and he himself claims that what he said is "in every Gemara"). Consider the words of Prof. Haym Soloveitchik in his seminal essay Rupture and Reconstruction:
Rabbi Isaac Peretz, a Sefaredi haredi and Israeli minister of interior, stated that the seventeen children and five adults killed when a train ran over their school bus died because of the recent public desecration of Sabbath in Petah Tikvah. These remarks caused a furor in the general community... Rabbi Peretz's remarks simply expressed the classic religious explanation of linking misfortune with guilt (pishpush be ma'asim), which would have been uttered by any preacher of the past millennium. Indeed, R. Nissim Yagen, the Sefaredi preacher, brought further proof of the causal link, as would have preachers of the past by pointing out a number of correlations: first, that the number of the dead totaled twenty two, which was also the date of the public opening of the movie theaters in Petah Tikvah (22 Sivan); second, the sum total of the dead and wounded amounted to thirty nine, which corresponds to the number of types of work forbidden on the Sabbath (lamed-tet avot melakhot). As noted above, the Sefaredic world has encountered modernity only recently, and in many ways, as in the palpable sense of the rewards and terrors of the afterlife and of God's immediate involvement in human affairs, remains far closer to the religious sensibilities of their fathers than does the more unconsciously acculturated members of the Ashkenazic community.
Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef made similarly shocking statements about the victims of the Holocaust, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and so on, and you don't see a hexadecarabbinical (HDR) condemnation of him. Going a little further back, there is no shortage of prestigious rabbis blaming the Holocaust on various sins, be it Zionism or assimilation. Even further back, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (the Tosafos Yom Tov) attributed the horrific Chmielnicki massacres to people talking in shul. And in the Gemara itself we find the Churban blamed on various sins. Surely, then, Rabbi Mizrachi is following in Torah tradition?

There is a lot to be said in response to this, and not all of it is pretty. Nor is this quite the right forum to do justice to such a complicated topic. However, let me at least sketch some basic points.

First of all, it is clear that nobody knows why things happen. Unless you receive a Divine prophecy from God Himself, there is simply no way to ever ultimately know why things happen. And rabbinic sages are not prophets. Note that even Chazal do not give a single definitive statement as to why the Churban happened; several different views are stated. Whatever insight Chazal had, it was not prophetic, and thus there could be no definitive, unequivocal explanation. In fact, the most traditional response to suffering is to simply confess ignorance. We have an entire book of Tanach on this topic: the Book of Iyov. And God's response to Iyov's suffering, to his having lost his children, is not to explain that his children watched pornography in a previous life. Rather, it is that Iyov, as a mortal, cannot expect to understand God's ways. Likewise, Chazal tell us how Moshe Rabbeinu posed the ultimate question of why bad things happen to good people, and he wasn't told that it was because there were women wearing long sheitels. Yet here comes Rabbi Mizrachi and claims that it's all so simple! That is not the traditional Torah approach.

Second, and this is the most crucial point, even if one's views regarding theodicy are correct, it can still be a sin to state them. There is a prohibition in the Torah of Lo sonu ish es amiso, "Do not oppress one another" (Vayikra 25:17). The Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b elaborates upon the sin of ona'as devarim, oppressing someone with words. One of the examples given is that if someone is suffering, it is forbidden to tell them that this is because they have sinned. Now, it is clear that Chazal held that this may indeed be the reason why the person is suffering; yet it is a sin to tell that to the person! Speculating as to the sins that led to tragedy must be done with great care. It can be a powerful tool to spur people to improve their ways. However, it can also involve a terrible transgression of ona'as devarim. It takes great wisdom and sensitivity to know when it is appropriate to issue such speculations, and how to issue them. To post a video on YouTube, and to glibly, smilingly talk about how child suffering is the result of their sins such as watching porn in a previous life, and how one shouldn't say "poor child!", is not traditional talk about theodicy; it is supremely sinful idiocy.

But don't some of Rav Ovadyah Yosef's statements fall into the same category? Yes, they do. And it should not have been left to Meretz MKs to call him out on such things. Still, there is enough other substance in Rav Ovadyah Yosef's career to understand how he managed to escape an HDR condemnation. With Rabbi Mizrachi, on the other hand, after you dismiss his arrogant and ridiculous claims of having made 150,00 people religious and having created "the most successful kiruv system in the world and perhaps in history," you get a charismatic but boorish entertainer with little scholarship or substance, possessing poor character traits of arrogance and dishonesty, who excels in attracting unsavory types, who responds with appalling viciousness to those that are understandably offended by his talks, who inspires people to make a religion out of offensive attitudes, and who manages to aggregate the most irrational and offensive claims in the history of rabbinic literature and apply them in such a way as to make them even more irrational and offensive. There's just not enough of value to get him off the hook.

(It was also pointed out to me that with the exception of Rav Ovadya, the others flew below the radar of the general community. They did not create massive chilul Hashem, or cause people to walk out of Yiddishkeit, as Rabbi Mizrachi has done. Furthermore, Rav Ovadya could count on the majority of those in the room with him to take his remarks as hyperbolic drama, rather than literally, even if that could not be said about everyone who would later hear the recordings. Rabbi Mizrachi, on the other hand, appears to specifically aim to be taken literally.)

Yasher koach to the signatories of the HDR, and let us wish them strength in the face of the nasty attacks of Rabbi Mizrachi and his devotees. And may we all try to increase our wisdom and sensitivity.

56 comments:

  1. If I might reply to the comment made by "Shades of Gray" in the previous thread on this subject..he stated:
    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    One of the people I spoke to after the ban is a prominent and well-known Charedi rav, someone I considered "moderate". He told me at the beginning of an hour-long conversation that the ban on RNS's books was a "quasi-psak" of sorts, that one is not allowed to help some people while harming others(he was aware of another book in which R. Elyashiv advised against publishing for this reason). He compared this to the fact that the Seridei Eish would not allow boys from certain Eastern European communities to learn in the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, because it would harm them.
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    I would like to point out that this works the opposite way as well. During the 1920's and 1930's many, many young Jews fled the traditional yeshivot and Hasidic Courts and became Communists, or if not that, they adopted the anti-religious socialist idealogy of MAPAM. Thus, we can say that THEY were harmed by the traditional Jewish education that they received and had they been exposed to a more "rationalist" approach or one more Zionistic, they would have remained observant. It is well known that the many of the most anti-religious people have come out of the most conservative (small "c") and traditionalist Orthoodox Jewish educational systems. I am sure that at least some of those who fled the yeshiva and Jewish observance would have been saved had they been exposed to the Hildesheimer Seminary or Religious Zionist thinking.

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  2. Didn't the rishonim and early acharonim that offered theodicic explanations also tell them to those who were affected? That seems pretty unavoidable, e.g. with the Spanish inquisition and expulsion. If so, why weren't they violating ona'as devarim?

    Lehavdil, your argument that R' Ovadia Yosef can say certain things but Yosef Mizrachi can't say them sounds like the argument of those who criticize your books for their content while allowing rishonim to say similar things.

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    1. I think he is saying that neither of them should say it, but Ovadia Yosef is great enough in other ways that we can understand why some people would look the other way.

      Yosef Mizrachi though is an extremely dangerous, distasteful character of absolutely no substance. In one person he epitomises some of the worst character traits of almost anybody. He should be shut up as quickly and effectively as possible.

      Personally I feel that Rav Ovadia Yosef's greatness is precisely the reason we should not let him get away with such statements. Yosef Mizrachi is an easy (but neccessary) target. When we challenge those who are truly worthy of respect, over the ideas they choose to express, then people will understand that we are serious about what we are saying.

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    2. I agree that Yosef Mizrachi shouldn't be doing kiruv, but the people who are issuing bans should just say that and explain why, rather than pointing to statements of fairly normative hashkafah.

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  3. I agree, Rabbi, I always thought Ulysses was an idiot.


    ...oh, you said theodicy. Never mind.

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    1. The only thing lacking from this post on Divine punishment was a good pun. Yasher koach.

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  4. Rav Natan: Thank you for your clearheaded discussion of an important issue. I have only one nit to pick on a marginal historical point. The example that you cite regarding the Tosafot Yom Tov is a misnomer. It is true that, immediately after the 1649 massacres, R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller instituted a Mi She-Berakh for people who refrain from speaking in shul. But it is also clear that his reaction was rooted in the desire to turn misfortune into an opportunity for heightened observance, not a simplistic expression of historical causation. He wrote two piyyutim about the massacres and the sin of talking in shul is absent from both. In the first piyut, he ascribes the massacres to Jewish sins generally and in the second he speaks of hester panim as well as political circumstances, specifically, the alliance of the Cossacks and the Tatars and the absence of a Polish king. For more detail, I commend to you the excellent biography of the Tosafot Yom Tov by the historian James Davis. R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller had very strong rationalist tendencies, and his understanding of historical events should not be grouped with cartoonish claims of modern charlatans. Eli Clark

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    1. Thanks so much for the correction. I have that book, I was looking for it and I have misplaced it!

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    2. Interesting, R. Eli...meanwhile, in the first result of my search for the text of that Mi Sheberach (the breslev.co.il website), this anecdote appears:

      לאחר גזירות השמד האיומות בשנות ת"ח ות"ט התענה הגאון בעל תוספות יו"ט זצוק"ל וביקש רחמים להודיע מה זה ועל מה זה נענשו כלל ישראל בעונשים קשים ומרים כאלו, ונגזרה גזירת חרב ואבדן על רבבות אלפי ישראל? והשיבו לו בחלום, כי הגזירה באה מחמת שמזלזלין בקדושת ביהכנ"ס וביהמ"ד! ומדברים דיבורי חול בביהמ"ד, ועל ידי שדיברו בביהכנ"ס ובביהמ"ד פגמו באות וא"ו של "דבור" ונעשה "דבר" רח"ל. וכשנודע לו כל זאת, תיקן התוספות יו"ט זצוק"ל לעשות מי שבירך למי שאינו מדבר בשעת התפילה. והיה מעורר ומזהיר הרבה את חומר האיסור לאלו שמדברים בביהכנ"ס ובביהמ"ד.

      (קונטרס ש"י למורא דף כ"ה ובדף ע')

      Note the "והשיבו לו בחלום" part.

      I don't think you're wrong, I think this shows how deep the rabbit hole is.

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  5. Your approach is similar to that of R. Moshe Lichtenstein. He distinguishes between detached, historical analysis, where a reward-and-punishment approach is appropriate, and public pronouncements regarding suffering that is still fresh, where it is decidely not. See http://etzion.org.il/en/weep-what-amalek-has-done-unto-you-lamentation-and-memory-holocaust-our-generation.
    I note that R. Meir Mazuz of Yeshivat Kisei Rahamim regularly attributes causes to suffering. For instance, he recently wrote that the terrible fires here in Israel were attributable to a gay pride march. Again. R. Mazuz is a talmid chacham of outstanding breadth, which probably protects him from criticism in the same way as it protected R. Ovadiah Yosef. His readers clearly don't react to his words the same way as more Western acculturated Jews.
    Another point to note is something often mentioned by Dr. Marc Shapiro. The Sephardi world was not directly affected by the Holocaust to the same extent as the Ashkenazi world, so it doesn't share the same visceral and personal reaction to comments that are regarded as offensive by Ashkenazim. This is not to excuse insensitivty, merely to explain it.

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    1. You are manifestly wrong. The large Sephardi communities of Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Netherlands were practically annihilated. On a strictly percentage basis, Sephardim may have suffered more in the Shoah.

      It was non-Sephardi Mizrahi communities which, with limited exceptions, largely escaped the Holocast.

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    2. Goodness, where are your stats from? What is the breakdown of genocide and survival by country and by Sphardim vs. Ashkenazim?

      Anyway, Asian and African Sphardim almost completely survived except I believe Tunisians, so they're less sensitive. And tragically, Dutch, Yugoslavians and Greeks aren't much around to be sensitive ....

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  6. I find it frankly bizarre that this post discusses the book of Iyov, but ignores Eicha, Yirmiyahu and Yehezkel.

    Further, since Mizrahi is a heretic I do not see the purpose in discussing his views and it is unclear to me whether one is even allowed to do so.

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    1. Crass, disgusting, boorish, supremely arrogant, and a whole load of other unpleasant adjectives. But heretic? Why?

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  7. It can't be ignored that R' Ovadya got away with a lot because he was:

    1. The head of a major political party.

    2. ...that could be sometimes relied upon to vote the "correct" way.

    3. Speaking to Israelis, in Hebrew.

    4. A former Chief Rabbi.

    5. Getting on in years.

    6. And, yeah, a big talmid chacham.

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  8. I don't buy it. I think that the difference between Mizrachi and Rav Ovadia Yosef has to do with fear and ideological conformity. It is not hard to disagree with Rav Ovadia without insulting him personally; just disagree without insulting him personally. But they will never do that.

    The proof for this is two-fold:

    1) They attack Mizrachi, but would barely say anything about what he actually did wrong. Most of the statement was "we are the authorities so listen to us". That makes perfect sense if they realize that they can't really attack what he said, since Rav Ovadia and others have said similar things. If there is really a principled distinction, then they can make those distinctions in their condemnation. The real distinction is that they owe no allegiance to Mizrachi.

    2) The unwillingness to say anything openly about Pogrow and his sexual abuse. To do so would imply that lots of people are responsible for huge mistakes and need to make changes. That can't be implied. The attack needs to be confined to the person himself.

    It is easy to pick on relatively unprotected individuals using your authority (as was done with you). It is harder to actually enunciate a neutral principle that might also apply to your friends.

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  9. Regarding transmigration of souls, the link you provide showing that several Geonim and Rishonim opposed does not mention Ramban who, although he doesn't mention it explicitly, does hint to it in a few places in his pirush on Torah when discussing yibum. We can reasonably assume that he received this from his teachers. Ramban is pretty mainstream.

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  10. It seems to me that the electoral success of Trump and the alleged success of Mizrachi in kiruv are a sign of the extent of the irrationality in our age. Both are ignorant blowhards with a strong narcissistic streak. Just listen to their inflated language. Everything they have done or will do is great or incomparable, while their detractors are evil failures. A simple example of Mizrachi's (I won't grace his name with a rabbi title) ignorance is his conclusion that 1 million halachic Jews died in the holocaust - not 6 million. He derives this 'fact' from an assumed 80% intermarriage rate among European Jews. That value is high even for pre-war western European Jewry, and it is a ridiculous number when it comes to pre-war east-European Jewry who were the predominant victims of the Shoah. He has gotten away with such nonsense only because his audience is equally ignorant, or will overlook his inanities because he supplies some need for certitude. Given his thin-skinned nature and vicious replies to criticism, I fail to see that any real good can come from him as long as his fans continue their adherence. Those who may have been nudged towards observance by him should now move on to other more respectable figures. The 16 critical rabbis who are largely from the kiruv community are right to counsel that he not be invited to speak.

    While attributing disasters to sins is traditional, it requires sagacity to decide if such attribution will cause more good than harm. Referring to a personal loss in such terms is particularly egregious. Nor is Mizrachi the only perpetrator of such insensitivity and arrogance. Others of ostensibly greater stature should be condemned, as well, if they venture into such a facile and insensitive manner of speech.

    Y. Aharon

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  11. Rabbi Slifkin, you wrote: "Rav Ovadia Yosef made similarly shocking statements about the victims of the Holocaust, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and so on, and you don't see a hexadecarabbinical (HDR) condemnation of him."

    Actually, the entire RCA (far more than 16 rabbis) criticized this statement:

    The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: The Rabbinical Council of America Issues a Statement on the Mystery of God's Ways (http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=100621)

    Sep 13, 2005 -- The Rabbinical Council of America expresses its heartfelt sympathy to all the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Together with other organizations throughout America, we have set up national relief efforts to raise the necessary funds to assist in the physical and spiritual reconstruction of the devastated communities.

    Mortal man is not privy to the ways of the Immortal One, and we do not always understand why sadness and tragedy are part of human life. The ways of the Creator of us all are hidden and mysterious. In the words of the prophet Isaiah (55:8-9), ?My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways, saith the Lord. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are My ways above your ways, and My thoughts above your thoughts.?

    Nevertheless, as believing Jews and as rabbis, we reaffirm our faith in the infinite and mysterious God above, Who is the Source of all strength, solace and comfort. In the midst of our collective suffering and pain, we reach out to Him for strength and wisdom, for our faith in Him as our Rock and our Redeemer remains firm and undiminished.

    The spirit of God that dwells within all human beings has already manifested itself in deeds of loving kindness towards the victims, and in offerings of time, resources, prayer, and love.

    Our hearts and hopes go out to all the victims of the disaster. We pray that the sick will soon be healed, the injured made whole, the homeless sheltered, the shattered rebuilt, the bereaved comforted, and the broken in spirit mended.

    ---

    I hope you will consider amending your article to reflect this point.

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    1. I don't see a criticism of Rav Ovadya's statement!

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    2. < I don't see a criticism of Rav Ovadya's statement! >

      I do. "Mortal man is not privy to the ways of the Immortal One" is a nice way of saying that ROY had no right to say what he said.

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    3. Yes. But explicit criticism will change attitudes and warn people far better than subtle references.

      It was the cowardly option. Because ROY was to big to attack directly. Mizrachi though, can be addressed much more explicitly.

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    4. Was that statement included as a reply to ROY, or just a general statement? Obviously the statement disagrees with ROY's, but that doesn't mean the RCA was condemning anyone.

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  12. You do a nice job of making it clear - but between the lines - that you, indeed, also disapprove of chazal making such statements, and think yes, they were also wrong. If I am correct, I suspect there are as many who would (silently) agree with that viewpoint, as there who would (loudly) condemn it.

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  13. We need to face the fact that authorities of earlier times said things that today are rightly regarded as reprehensible. But context is the difference between Mizrachi and the superficially similar statements of earlier authorities.

    In the absence of science, people were once far more likely to cast about for supernatural causes for their problems. Providing such answers to people who sought them was a comfort, because it allowed them to believe that they could control outcomes. That is a very different thing from using catastrophic events to cast blame on your opponents.

    (Also, while I prefer Windows, "iMacs shema" is going a bit far. And Mizrachi is absolutely right about one thing: "The Zohar is full of it.")

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  14. I disagree with you about the theodicy venture (I would say Sefer Iyov is an outlier, not the rule), but if the screen shots you are posting of Rabbi Mizrachi's statements are accurate, he seems utterly unworthy to hold the title rabbi. His manner of speaking is despicable in my opinion.

    One more point concerning theodicy: The people who are "shocked" at such statements are usually not those to whom they are addressed. What usually happens is that a charedi rabbi addresses a charedi crowd, which accepts the statements for the most part as inspiration to do teshuvah. The "scandal" starts when Modern Orthodox or secular Jews get a hold of them and publicize them for one and all to read and be "shocked" by.

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  15. I initially thought that Mizrachi had used a speech interpreter in forming the text of his vicious comment in the text box - given the hilarious spelling and gross grammatical errors. However, he wrote 'sha'ar hagilgulim' in Hebrew. Hence, the entire diatribe, including "Adolfo hitler iMacs shemo" is his writing. The ignorance or extreme sloppiness implied is somewhat astounding. Yet, this guy has followers - even passionate ones.

    Y. Aharon

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    1. It could well have been the Autocorrect feature. Plus, English is not his first language. This is not grounds to criticize him.

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    2. Natan, iMacs for yimach could be autocorrect but Adolpho for Adolph? How about seadoa gaon instead of Sa'adis Gaon? Is that also autocorrect? I also note that shemo and shema weren't changed by autocorrect. This guy lectures in English which should mean that he feels that he has a command of the language. This guy reeks of arrogance and self-importance. He is too lofty to learn English properly or to review his postings before hitting send. This is all besides the vilification of those who would criticize him. He is the type of person who merits whatever faults could be found in him.

      Y. Aharon

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    3. I believe it's "Sa'adia Gaon." Please review your posting before hitting "send." :-)

      (Boy, am I going to look foolish if THIS reply has any typos.)

      More seriously, I think we can let "Adolpho" slide. It's just "Adolph" in a different language--although I'm not sure which. Some faults are irrelevant.

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    4. I can understand a conjugation or spelling mistake due to English being his second language, but come on. His comically poor writing is indicative of his careless and boorish character. If a rabbi should be careful not to be seen in tattered clothing, he should also be careful to make a respectable presentation on paper or online. Calling another Jew "garbage" while comparing oneself to Moshe Rabbeinu is enough to make one's head spin no matter how it is spelled.

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    5. Elliot, obviously it's Sa'adia. My myopia allowed that typo to go uncorrected ('s' is next to 'a' on the keyboard). I do check my comments before posting, but I obviously didn't do a thorough job. In any case, this error falls into one of those "some faults are irrelevant" categories - as opposed to 'Adolpho' from someone pontificating about victims of the holocaust.

      Y. Aharon

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    6. Y. Aharon, please note the smiley. I often suffer the same myopia, coupled with errant fingers.

      I stand by "Adolpho" as a linguistic variant, though. And I don't find R. Mizrachi's lack of command of English nearly as troubling as what JD cites above: "calling another Jew 'garbage' while comparing oneself to Moshe Rabbeinu."

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  16. We should be able to draw lessons from events, but also need to understand our limits. It's remarkable how often events are interpreted for us in ways that mesh exactly with the speaker's previous concerns and public campaigns. The secular analogue is the doctrinaire person who takes all phenomena as evidence of human-caused global warming.

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  17. Clearly, http://cross-currents.com/ got shuttered because the vicious attack on Ha Gaon, R.Mizrachi shlita posted on there.

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  18. Rabbi Slifkin, you are on the right track, but not quite. Theodicy involves much more than onas devarim. Once you posit that a person or group's suffering is due to the will of G_D, for whatever reason,why should you interfere with what G_D wants by offering help? Theodicy, by giving reasons for other people's suffering, makes us more accepting of that suffering, because in some sense "they deserved it". In fact, there is an entire book written on this subject: "Evils of Theodicy" by Terrence Tilley. Our response to the suffering of others should be one of aid and help, plus trying to make sure whatever happened does not happen again. The only "whys" should be aimed at prevention of future suffering, not trying to guess things about G_D that have no basis in human knowledge. If you want to use theodicies, apply them to yourself, not to others!

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    1. I don't know anything about "Evils of Theodicy" by Terrence Tilley, but the gemara in more than one place deals with this question, as do the rishonim vis a vis the possuk in mishpatim "vrapo yerapay". the upshot is that god brings about suffering (illness, poverty, whatever) for reasons of his own, which under certain circumstances can include punishing an offender, but charges us with the mitzvah of helping (ie giving charity, healing the sick, returning lost items etc.).
      in other words the two issues are completely separate, the first is why did god do this and what does he expect us to learn from it, which can include learning the wages of sin. the second is how does he want us to react, which generally speaking is by trying to help, which includes sympathy.

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    2. Thank you for the comments, Anonymous. There is a vast literature on theodicy. You will never understand the problem by the method of TOSTOS (this one said, that one said, from classical Jewish sources, generally interpreted out of context). You will need to read a lot, including non-Jewish sources such as the one I quoted. Think about this logically. If every bad thing that happens to people is the will of G_D, who are you to interfere and alleviate the suffering, especially if they “deserved it” due to prior aveiras? Can you see the problem? We are not supposed to look for what G_d is thinking as a cause of others suffering precisely because we get into this bind. The deeper message of Iyov is that the very phrasing of notion of why people suffer is a human construct in human language that may have no relationship whatsoever to whatever causes there are in the spiritual world. So we don’t ask these questions unless they help to alleviate the proximal causes that are understandable by humans. For example, if Joseph has a heart attack and he is a heavy smoker, the human causal element is obvious and we react by encouraging smoking cessation. We don’t look for what G_d’s reasons are because the very question is likely to be nonsensical in the spiritual world. We are only permitted to look for proximate human causes, and they are present much of the time. Furthermore, failure to look for the proximate human causes of misfortune or evil is irresponsible. Would we help Joseph by telling him that his heart attack was due to gilgul rather than to smoking? Recall that there are more than a few of the 613 Mitzvot that tell us to help others who are suffering but zero that command us to determine what G_D is “thinking”. The Torah is not stupid and is well aware of the problem.

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    3. "Think about this logically. If every bad thing that happens to people is the will of G_D, who are you to interfere and alleviate the suffering, especially if they 'deserved it' due to prior aveiras?"

      Who are we to interfere and alleviate the suffering? We are people commanded not to stand idly by our brother's blood, to give charity, to not oppress the stranger, even to rescue the animal of an enemy which has fallen under its burden. You're correct that there are zero commandments to determine what God is thinking. Pay no mind to the reason someone may be suffering and just help them.

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    4. I imagine that there is a vast literature on theodicy with which I am not familiar, and maybe there are issues with it that i'm not thinking of. in this case though, I am only responding to the specific issue that you brought up "If every bad thing that happens to people is the will of G_D, who are you to interfere and alleviate the suffering". this is a question that every yeshiva child has to grapple with when they learn the pasuk in parshat mishpatim "ורפא ירפא". indeed there are various interpretations in the rishonim of how to understand the statement of chazal "מכאן שניתנה רשות לרופא לרפאות", but the upshot is the distinction that I drew in my previous comment.

      1) god makes people sick for whatever his reasons. among his possible reasons is punishing sinners. the torah makes very clear in numerous places, and this is reiterated by chazal and the rishonim, that we are expected to learn from whatever suffering god brings on the world. what the lesson or insight is supposed to be depends on the circumstances, and requires a great deal of wisdom, which is why most people prefer to leave it to the great sages of the generation.

      2) god expects us to react to the suffering of others the same way that react to our own suffering. when we suffer we are (hopefully) inspired to tshuva and tefila, but we also seek physical relief by going to doctors. we are allowed to do so, and it is not considered "rebelling" against god's will precisely because the torah gave us permission to do so "מכאן שניתנה רשות לרופא לרפאות". likewise when someone else is suffering, god expects us to be motivated to seek relief for them through physical means.

      as far as your philosophical question, why indeed does god allow us to seek relief through physical means (and demand that we do so for others), it's not really that troubling. keep in mind that god is kind, and the suffering he imposes is itself a kindness (there may be rare exceptions, but as a general statement that is true), even if we fail to experience it that way. he is perfectly capable of imposing the needed degree of suffering despite our best efforts at relief, but allows us to seek that relief and demands that we provide it for others.

      2 last points.
      1) "The deeper message of Iyov is that the very phrasing of notion of why people suffer is a human construct in human language that may have no relationship whatsoever to whatever causes there are in the spiritual world"
      I came away from studying iyov with a very different understanding, but that is beyond the scope of a blog.
      2) "Recall that there are more than a few of the 613 Mitzvot that tell us to help others who are suffering but zero that command us to determine what G_D is “thinking”.
      there may not be any command that we determine what god is thinking, but there are multiple commands that we determine what lesson god is trying to teach us. in the tochacha that is quite explicit.

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    5. larry,
      my apologies, this paragraph should have read:
      as far as your philosophical question, why indeed does god allow us to seek relief through physical means (and demand that we do so for others), it's not really that troubling. keep in mind that god is kind, and the suffering he imposes is itself a kindness (there may be rare exceptions, but as a general statement that is true), even if we fail to experience it that way. he is perfectly capable of imposing the needed degree of suffering despite our best efforts at relief, but allows us to seek that relief and demands that we provide it for others. god does not command us to help others because he needs us to intervene, he is perfectly capable of relieving suffering on his own (per the gemara's story about the roman who asked r' akiva your question regarding theodicy). we are commanded to relieve other's suffering because it helps us to perfect our tselem elokim.

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    6. Thank you for your comments anonymous and JD. For JD: I agree with your conclusion completely. We do not go through the exercise of attributing suffering to the “will of G_D” because it is illogical, as demonstrated above, and will make it less likely that we will offer help. We should only think about is offering help.
      For Anonymous: Several points.
      1. Theodicy –meaning trying to explain G_d’s reasons for the suffering of others- is itself evil. At best, it decreases motivation to help those suffering. At worst, it is abused to dehumanize the suffering. Let’s say Mr. Jones is a known con-man, having cheated widows and orphans. Now Mr. Jones get a serious illness. Would you be more or less likely to help him if you had the viewpoint that he was being punished for his aveiras? Surely you are aware of theodicies given by the Catholic Church, over the ages, to ignore the suffering of Jews (and even intensify that suffering). Rabbi Mizrachi’s statements are another example of the easy abuse of theodicy.
      2. There is a vast difference between saying that G_d is making someone suffer so that they improve themselves vs. someone who is suffering deciding to use that opportunity to examine their deeds and improve themselves.
      3.The tochachas do not say what G_d is “thinking”. They outline punishments to the Jewish people for straying, etc. There are punishments for violation of various laws throughout the Torah.
      4.There is what has been called the “pastoral problem”. This arises when a Rabbi tries to help a person find meaning in their suffering. In this case, giving a religious explanation of the suffering becomes a mode of alleviating that person’s suffering and is a permissible theodicy.
      5. Be careful when you use the word “sin”. This is not a Hebrew word and has all sorts of Christian connotations. In Judaism, we have words for transgressions- avon, chait, and pesha. These have nothing to do with the Christian concept of “sin”. Use of that term is another example of how Christian concepts have seeped into Judaism.
      6.Iyov suffers because of events in higher worlds (an initiative by the Satan, for no good reason) that he or anyone else could not comprehend. His friend’s theodicies are irrelevant.

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    7. larry,

      i think that we are beginning to speak past each other, but i will make one last attempt to sum up what i think are issues that we disagree about.

      in your post above points 1, 2, 4, you are not addressing the truth or lack thereof of "theodicy", you simply argue that it is offensive or may lead to bad outcomes. without expressing any opinion on those contentions, i would argue they are irrelevant to the issue of whether or not such explanations are a. true, and b. consistent with god's will as expressed in the torah.

      in point 5 you take issue with the use of the english word "sin". you are of course correct, but writing in english one is limited to the english vocabulary. since sin is imprecise, please translate it in your mind to the hebrew chet (including all of the conceptual differences between the 2 words).

      3 and 6 are where the important differences are.

      regarding point 3, i disagree on 2 issues. first of all you concede that the torah says that sin causes suffering. elementary logic tells us that if A causes B, then B is caused by A. hence if sin causes suffering, then suffering is caused by sin. it may not be the only cause, but it is a cause.
      second of all, and more to the point, the purpose of the suffering is precisely that we should understand what it is that god wants of us (what god is thinking may be irrelevant, but what he is trying to teach us, the message contained in the suffering, is very relevant).
      see how the rambam understands the verses of the tochacha:

      ודבר זה מדרכי התשובה הוא. שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו עליה ויריעו ידעו הכל שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הורע להן ככתוב עונותיכם הטו וגו'. וזה הוא שיגרום להסיר הצרה מעליהם
      אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית. הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים. ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות. הוא שכתוב בתורה והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי גם אני עמכם בחמת קרי. כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה כדי שתשובו אם תאמרו שהיא קרי אוסיף לכם חמת אותו קרי.

      in point 6 you argue that iyov's friend’s theodicies are irrelevant. if that where true iyov would not spend several chapters refuting them. on the contrary, iyov agrees that had he sinned, it would explain his suffering. his argument is that it doesn't explain his suffering because he is certain that he has not sinned. certainly, if you are arguing that theodicy is inappropriate when a perfect person (such as iyov) suffers, i would agree with you (as would the rambam quoted above). but that doesn't automatically carry over to the rest of us, who know in our hearts that we are far from perfect.
      in any case, iyov is too broad a topic to be discussed on a blog.

      be well, and may all of us merit doing teshuva without having to suffer first.

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    8. Hello anonymous and thanks again for the reply. We do not need to use the word “sin". Hebrew words for transgression have definite English meanings that are readily available (even in the ArtScroll machzorim). There is no need to sound like a Christian when discussing such matters in English- in fact I think the word “sin” should be banned from the Jewish vocabulary. To say that a theodicy is “true” is to say that you know why G_D does what he does. As you are aware, not even Moshe got the answers to such questions. Certainly, the Torah tells us many things that cannot be done, but there is no way that the Torah tells us what the specific punishments are for a given individual. We can never, say, for example, that Reuven lost his hand in an accident because he stole something last year. In fact, there are many who violate prohibitions and are not punished at all. We know what we should not be doing and there is no need to come up with reasons for G_d’s apparent actions. If you research this, you will see that the whole concept of theodicy came about as an attempt to explain how a G_D who is 100% good, omnipotent, and omniscient could allow evil to happen. This was a huge problem for Christian theology in the middle ages and seeped into Judaism. The literature is vast, but the overwhelming opinion is that no theodicy is logically consistent, let alone factually true. I have enjoyed this discussion and hope things go well for you!

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  19. The gemara and midrashim always speak of "pishpush b'ma'asav", examining one's own deeds, never pishpush b'ma'asim, examining deeds in general. Indeed, one of the themes of sefer Iyyov, it seems to me, is that one shouldn't justify bad things that happen to others, at least if one is not a Navi. Thus God's rebuke to Iyyov's friends. Now, if one is a communal leader, I suppose one might expand that to looking at communal tragedy in terms of the sins of one's own community. But, although I know it is common, I do not see how there can be any justification for blaming tragedy on the sins of others, including the victims.

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  20. The word "hexadecarabbinical" (or HDR) is used in this post as though it were a common phrase. Perhaps it will become one, and in time we'll all forget where it came from.

    I think the same has happened with "Amber alert," though for me, I thought on first hearing that it had to do with the color of traffic lights, and only later learned it's the name of a specific person.

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  21. I was surprised that there was no mention in this discussion of the Rabbi Avigdor Miller book: "A Divine Madness" which asserts that the cause of the Holocaust was Jewish assimilation. To his great credit, Rabbi Miller chose not to publish A divine Madness, even though he had previously published 12 books and disseminated more than 2,000 audio lectures. But some of his descendants and students apparently decided that they knew better and published the manuscript in 2013.

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    1. My understanding, based on statements that Rabbi Miller made in his audio lectures, was that Rabbi Miller left instructions for it to be published after his death. Rabbi Miller stated that the reason why he didn't want it to be published while he was alive was because the sin of Loshon Hara does not apply to statements about the dead.

      Meaning, he knew that critics would malign him for his position vis-a-vis the Holocaust and he didn't want those critics to sin.

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    2. That's a new definition of Lashon Hara. Methinks that he didn't want to face the backlash from taking such an absurd position.

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    3. What's new? Saying true things about someone in order to portray them in a negative light has always been Lashon Hara.

      I also seriously doubt that he thought his own position was absurd.

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  22. My understanding, with regard to when it is appropriate and when it is inappropriate to ascribe suffering to sin, is that it depends on whether you are referring to individual suffering or national suffering. No one (other than the suffering individual himself) can know enough of the sould of another person to be able to ascribe suffering to sin. However, when there is national suffering (or provincial/municipal) it is appropriate to try and determine what the spiritual cause is. Although any announcements regarding such spiritual cause should include caveats to make clear that this is a theory and not a statement of fact.

    To me that is the clear distinction between what Chacham Ovadia said (albeit without the cautionary language) and what Mizrachi said.

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  23. Rav Ovadya tended to make those comments in shiurim to a relatively small number of people, in a style of 'hell-fire preaching' that his audience were cmpletely aware of being hyperbole. If he were speaking face-to-face with an audience less likely to appreciate the nuances, he would take a very different, and much more conciliatory approach.

    While I'm sure he was aware that those shiurim were disseminated publicly, the general public was very much not the intended audience.

    Mizrachi's methods are very different, he uses the internet as his primary means of communication, and the same defence doesn't apply.

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    1. Why the apologetics? Rav Ovadia Yosef of both a great genius and a great politician. He understood very well the very public nature of his comments. If you disagree with Rav Ovodia, it is more respectful to simply say so, than to try recreate him in your own image. His greatness doesn't need your stamp of approval, nor it is mitigated because he erred in some of his statements. I don't get the idea of respecting great men or women by treating them as infallible.

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